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Opinionista

Two years of the full-scale invasion and 10 years of war – but we Ukrainians will keep fighting

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Dzvinka Kachur is with the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST), Stellenbosch University.

When Russia’s full-scale invasion began and more than 200,000 soldiers started their attack on the 3,000km border of sovereign Ukraine, occupying city after city, there was little hope that Ukraine could withstand them. Like the majority of people in Ukraine at the time, I had no doubt that Ukraine had to win. We had to defend our country against this unjust, unprovoked war.

At the beginning of March 2014, less than a month after Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine militarily and send his “green man” to grab Ukrainian territory, I and a few South Africans concerned about human rights stood in front of the Russian consulate in Cape Town. Putin denied the presence of the Russian military until a year later; in April 2015, he explained, with bravado, that on the night of 20 February 2014, he had made the decision to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea.

In August 2008, after Russia invaded Georgia, Putin was interviewed by Friedrich Hayek. He said: “Crimea is not a disputed territory. There was no ethnic conflict there, unlike the conflict between Ossetia and Georgia. And Russia has long recognised the borders of Ukraine.”

In December 2013, Putin was asked if Russia could possibly send its military forces into Ukrainian Crimea, but he denied any potential military aggression.

“This does not mean that we are going to wave a sabre – this is complete nonsense and this cannot happen like that.”

In March 2014, when asked about Russian military forces in Crimea, Putin said that there were no Russian military forces.

But in November 2014, his responses started to change:

“Our military forces … frankly speaking … blocked the Ukrainian military forces in Crimea”

In 2015, a documentary called Homeward Bound was released on state-run Rossiya-1 television:

“I told all my colleagues … we are forced to start working on returning Crimea to Russia. Because we can’t leave this territory,” Putin said in the documentary. “I’ve set special tasks and told them what and how to do … This is our historical territory, our people live there … This is our land … Our advantage was that I was personally dealing with it”.

In 2014, at that first protest in Cape Town, we read Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s poems:

Keep fighting — you are sure to win!

God helps you in your fight!

For fame and freedom march with you,

And right is on your side!

– The Caucasus​​ by Taras Shevchenko (English translation by John Weir)

Shevchenko –  a Ukrainian poet in the 18th century who was born a serf peasant of a Russian landlord – knew the price you paid when standing against Russian colonisation. For his fight for the rights of Ukrainians, he was imprisoned and prohibited from writing, painting, visiting or living in Ukraine.

In February 2022, when the full-scale invasion started, I believed this war could not last long.

Russian mothers silenced

Firstly, because how could Russian mothers allow their sons to go and die in Ukraine? How could any normal person agree to invade another country and risk their life for Putin’s colonial vision? Surely, people would rebel and want to save their children. But as of 2024, Russian propaganda is holding society very tightly. More than 400,000 Russian soldiers are in Ukraine territory, and their relatives can be imprisoned for 10 years for simply mentioning the word war. Russian mothers are silenced. 

Secondly, Ukraine is a sovereign state, a founding member of the United Nations. Surely, there are all those international agreements that will defend my country from Russian occupation? If nothing else, Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in 1994, joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty and received assurances from the US, the UK and Russia that Ukraine’s borders would be protected. But in practice, the international system turned out to be unable to stop the UN Security Council member, with the right of veto, from making the first land grab since 1945. Indeed, more than 140 countries at the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the Russian invasion, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Russia had to remove its military forces from Ukraine territory. But those measures do not stop missiles from falling or Russian soldiers from torturing civilians.

Now, after two years of watching how a much stronger neighbour destroys your home, there is no more hope that there will be a “policeman” who will come and arrest the intruder. There is also no hope that things will be as they used to be.

Over the past two years, Russia’s desire to convert Ukrainians into Russians has become obvious to all Ukrainians. Previously, many people would not ask why they were Russian-speaking Ukrainians when their grandparents spoke Ukrainian. 

In the 1990s, when I was at school in Kyiv, people would often ask me: “Are you from the rural areas? Why do you speak Ukrainian?” I was not from a rural area, but the majority of kids in my class would speak Russian on the streets, and Ukrainian at home, to avoid being asked that question.

In 2015, Ukraine’s government made a bold decision to open all KGB archives. Anyone, Ukrainian or foreigner could go and learn the history of persecution and systemic discrimination against people identifying as Ukrainian. But it did not have the same effect as Putin’s invasion. Now, all my schoolmates are speaking Ukrainian to their children.

Social trauma of war

My family and my nieces are still in Kyiv, Ukraine. In 2023, Russia attacked with more than 6,000 missiles, 1,000 of them ballistic missiles that allow only a few minutes for people to get to the bomb shelter. Six thousand missiles mean that Ukrainian children have to run to the bomb shelter a few times a night. But Ukrainians now know how to build schools underground. The social trauma from the war is constantly growing, and it is getting more and more difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Eight million Ukrainians are abroad – these are predominantly women with children, as men are still restricted from leaving the country. Two years for a family to be separated is a long time, and families are eroding. Five million people are internally displaced and have to build their life from scratch in a new place. Twenty-three thousand people are missing. And for those whose family members are on the frontline or have returned in coffins, life is not easier.

For the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian Association of South Africa (UAZA), an NGO registered in 2017 that unites Ukrainians and South Africans interested in promoting cooperation between the two countries, is organising protests in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria to raise awareness about the Ukrainian children forcibly deported to Russia.

The legislation that Putin approved in May 2022 allows children’s citizenship to be changed without consent, in the process, changing their NAME, SURNAME and DATE OF BIRTH. When children are turned into Russian citizens, they are sent to foster families or for adoption, and they become indoctrinated in the Russian world of hatred. They are not allowed to speak Ukrainian or to attend Ukrainian online schools. Changes that the Russian government makes in children’s documents make it very difficult, almost impossible, for Ukrainian caregivers to identify and return them.

Changing children’s citizenship and transferring them from one country to another is a direct violation of the Geneva Convention, but Ukrainians in South Africa are not seeking liability with these protests. We just want Ukrainian children to come back, as children can easily be indoctrinated, and when they reach the age of 18 they risk going to the army and fighting against their country and against their own families. UAZA is calling on the South African government and South African civil society and simply everyone to help to return Ukrainian children.

One can say that 10 years of protesting in South Africa did not bring many results, but I take a lot of inspiration from the South African and Ukrainian fight for freedom. And the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation in Cape Town became my second spiritual home. When people are left without a choice, they cannot give up. The only way is to keep fighting.

I dream of Ukraine being a strong, independent, democratic country. For all Ukrainians to go back to their homes, for us to hug and cry on our families’ graves, for our children to never again face punishment when they speak the Ukrainian language. But until then, we have to continue doing what we can, despite where we are. Ukrainians in more than 60 countries are staging protests today, 24 February, to send a signal – we are not tired, we do want a long-lasting, just peace, but until then we will keep fighting. D

 

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  • Beyond Fedup says:

    May GOD bless Ukraine and deliver it from the evil, bestial and deranged Putin mass-murderer. I cannot wait for the day when you are free to chart your course, enjoy freedom and human rights. I also cannot wait for the odious Putin and his hideous cronies to burn in hell forever more!! SLAVA UKRAINA!!!!

  • Antoine van Gelder says:

    Slava Ukraini!

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